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15 October 2020updated 17 Nov 2020 2:55pm

Alex Kay-Jelski on how the Athletic persuaded a million readers to pay for sports journalism

The Athletic’s UK editor-in-chief on recruitment, readership and being resourceful during Covid-19.

By Rohan Banerjee

When Alex Kay-Jelski left the Times in June 2019 he was not, contrary to some rumours, frogmarched from the newspaper’s offices in London Bridge. Despite having lost one of the UK’s most prominent sports journalists – Kay-Jelski had been sports editor of both the Times and the Daily Mail – his former employers were, he says, “really lovely about it […] I got a big hug and was wished well.”

Had they known the progress that Kay-Jelski’s new employer, the American sports website the Athletic, would make over the next year, they might not have been so gracious. From the site’s UK launch two months later, in August 2019, to last month, the sports news and features site has added more than 400,000 new subscribers, giving it more than a million paying readers worldwide.

The Athletic was launched in Chicago in 2016 by Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann, who were not journalists or publishers, but technologists. They met while working for the fitness tracking app Strava, which also makes the majority of its money from subscriptions. The Athletic offers “smarter coverage for die-hard fans”, who pay £60 a year for full access with no advertising. 

Sports have long been supported by advertising, and the high frequency of news makes free, ad-supported reporting a popular business model for sports journalism. But Kay-Jelski says that the Athletic’s commitment is to “quality as well as quantity”, and that ultimately the clean, ad-free design of the site and app help users navigate the “breadth and depth” of its analysis.

The company’s initial rapid growth was made possible by substantial venture capital investment, with firms including Founders Fund, TPG Growth and Courtside Ventures putting in almost $140m over five funding rounds. This has allowed it to pursue an aggressive hiring strategy. In the UK, where it focuses primarily on football, it has hired the 36-year-old Kay-Jelski (as UK editor-in-chief), plus the Times’ veteran football writer George Caulkin, the Liverpool Echo’s James Pearce, and the Guardian’s Amy Lawrence. These are complemented, Kay-Jelski says, by a team of emerging talents – “around a dozen writers working in their first [full-time] jobs in the industry.” The site has the potential to expand into covering other UK sports, such as cricket and boxing, he adds, though there are no confirmed plans around this as yet.

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Another rumour – that journalists were offered doubled salaries to leave their roles at leading newspapers – is “bullshit”, Kay-Jelski says, although he notes that at the Athletic “competitive actually means competitive” in salary terms. Instead Kay-Jelski, a Tottenham Hotspur fan, says it was about the project, rather than the pay. While it may not have offered double-pay or company cars, the site, which employs “just north of 100” people in the UK, most of whom are in editorial, clearly did enough to attract recruits. 

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For sports writers, the tight deadlines, long hours, night shifts, and weekend work of the news cycle are part of the price paid for reporting on their passion. But while the Athletic does report news, its journalists do not produce traditional match reports or press conference write-ups, instead focusing on longer features and interviews. Kay-Jelski says the work itself makes the Athletic attractive to journalists. “There are people who now believe in what we’re doing, and who want to work for us.”

This freedom does not necessarily make the work less demanding than at any newspaper. “If you’re not allowed to do a match report, or quotes from a presser, or you can’t do player ratings, then you’re starting your week off with one thought – where is my copy coming from? There’s no baseline of given things that you can do, so you’re always going to be coming up with original ideas.”

But this insistence on originality is also, Kay-Jelski says, what has allowed the Athletic to flourish during the Covid-19 pandemic, when almost all of the sport it reported on was cancelled. As other publications paused their coverage, the Athletic’s “more creative” approach allowed it to gain ground on the competition. “Our writers worked bloody hard and had to come up with a lot more ideas. We got stuck into nostalgia pieces. It was quite scary […] but thankfully when the football came back, so did the interest, and the readers.”

The more thoughtful approach also helps it cover sport at a time when it has become closely mixed with politics. The pandemic has highlighted issues around the economics and governance of elite sport itself, while issues around class, race, and sexuality can be discussed through the prism of sport.  “And that’s a good thing,” Kay-Jelski  says.

“Ultimately, we are journalists,” he adds, “and we have a responsibility to shine a light on things that we think are right or wrong. So many stories go beyond the pitch or the transfer window. So the Athletic will continue to report on wider movements, like Black Lives Matter, like tackling homophobia. I don’t think you can call yourself a serious news organisation if you are not covering these issues.”

[See also: The new political football]

In March, an article in GQ dubbed the site the “Netflix of sports writing”. This is a compliment, Kay-Jelski says, that he would “probably go along with”. But it is also a useful parallel: like Netflix, the Athletic does not see itself as a brand that attracts a typical reader. Instead it caters to its readers’ interests. “The whole point was to have something for everyone, and that’s why you can personalise your feed [on the app and site]. You can tailor which clubs or writers you do or don’t read.”

After four years, the company has not recorded a profit, and the million-strong subscription number includes people currently on trials or discounted offers. But “the figure is real,” Kay-Jelski says. “A million people is still a million people. The try-before-you-buy concept isn’t something unique to us. It’s a good policy and it works.”

This is an uncertain time for sports coverage in the UK. A football calendar that formerly ran like clockwork is now a frenzied mess. And new media companies once thought to be transformative have, in recent years, collapsed. But Kay-Jelski says he is relaxed. “I never came into this thinking I was taking a risk.”